It’s been 40 years since Indiana Jones whip-cracked his way into pop culture in Steven Spielberg’s exhilarating Raiders of the Lost Ark. Premiering in the US and Canada on June 12, 1981, Raiders kicked off a beloved series of Nazi-punching archeological adventures with Harrison Ford plus a cast of memorable heroes and villains, with a.
The Indiana Jones movies are also one of the few series I feel the need to buy again whenever it’s released in a new format. Getting to revisit Raiders, Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull every few years and seeing the jump in fidelity is one of life’s joys. To mark the series’ 40th anniversary, Paramount has released all four movies on(UK fans ) so Indy’s adventures are looking sharper than ever before.
In Raiders, British actor Paul Freeman played René Belloq, an archaeologist allied with the Nazis to seek the lost Ark of the Covenant. With his amoral outlook, Belloq acts as a “shadowy reflection” of Indy, who wants to stop the Nazis recovering a power that could make Hitler’s army invincible.
After checking out Raiders in 4K for the first time, I chatted to the 78-year-old Freeman over the phone about his experience playing the series’ first villain four decades ago. Here’s a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity.
I just watched Raiders of the Lost Ark again, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it. Why do I always get sucked right back in? What makes it so engaging?
Freeman: There are so many good jokes in the script and a great deal of humor in the storytelling — the whole shorthand of the plane going across the map. You don’t say “Oh, that’s ridiculous,” you take it all in. It’s such fun.
Do you remember Ronnie Lacey’s character, the German Toht, who had the scar on his hand? He does a gag in the tent scene with Karen Allen and I, where he gets a coat hanger out and you think it’s an instrument of torture and it snaps into a coat hanger? Spielberg used that same joke in 1941, but didn’t work there. So he did it again in Raiders and it works very well.
“If at first you don’t succeed…” — that’s quite impressive. How does it feel when a movie you’re in turns 40?
It only just struck me that it’s the same age as my daughter, who was born just after it came out. It’s a wonderful thing to be part of, and something I’m proud of.
Can you tell me about how you got the part of Belloq?
Spielberg had seen a drama-documentary I’d made the year before, Death of a Princess [based on the true story of a 19-year-old Saudi Arabian princess’ execution for adultery]. It was a big scandal at the time. The Saudis were so upset by it that they recalled their ambassadors.
I was just finishing a film in Belize, The Dogs of War, and I got this call to go meet Spielberg in LA afterwards — he’d already considered Giancarlo Giannini, a really good Italian actor [more recently seen playing James Bond’s ally in ]. I had a chat with him, read the script, then took off around Arizona for a bit until I got a phone call saying, “You got it.”
Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas were a big deal even then. Did you have any sense of how huge Raiders could become?
There wasn’t that sense on the set of it being really important, or the start of something big. Nobody ever spoke about the franchise, for instance.
Different times, I imagine that’s all they talk about these days.
Yeah, I think everything’s done now with an eye towards a franchise.
On my latest viewing, I was struck by your chemistry with Karen Allen [who plays Marion Ravenwood]. What do you think created that chemistry between you two as actors?
We’re both theater actors, so we were happy to rehearse. That wine-drinking scene in the den was something where Steven asked us to improvise. The script had the bare bones of it, but it wasn’t sufficient. So we went away and he filmed what we did. And we got on really well.
There’s quite a strong sexual undertone in that scene, which is not written at all — the whole business with the dress, which she ends up having to climb around in.
The wonderful thing about Karen as Marion is that she’s like a Katharine Hepburn character. She’s capable of doing anything: riding a horse, boxing, drinking men under the table, but without being at all unfeminine.
I also loved Belloq’s outfits — the slick suits and hats. Was that wardrobe fun to wear?
Oh yeah, it was great. The costume designer, Deborah Nadoolman, was in charge of all that and did a really good job. The one thing I added was the cravat; I’d just met my wife [Maggie Scott] on Dogs of War, the film before this. We were just getting together and I was wearing a cravat she gave me for those scenes.
Belloq has a wonderful introduction scene, where he takes the idol from Indy, sends the Peruvian tribespeople after him and has a maniacal laugh.
One of the things I remember about that scene — Steven and George hadn’t decided what language those South American indigenous peoples spoke when we were filming. So what I’m actually saying there is ‘Bacon, lettuce and tomato,” then they all rush off into the jungle.
Which of the Indy movies that you’re not in is your favorite?
The Last Crusade. It’s fun to see Harrison and Sean Connery doing their son and dad thing.